Keeping Designers Happy: A Story of 0% Annual Attrition

Creatives are a challenging bunch, myself included. How do you keep them hungry, engaged and creatively fed… all while massive organizational changes happen? While there is no magic formula, there are a few tactics we have noticed during the evolution that is Intrepid.

I was in a recent apprentice interview, where she strategically asked: “Where do designers go when they leave?” Caught off guard, I answered truthfully (and secretly proudly): “I don’t know, no one has left our design team in the last year**.” I did talk about other departments and the usual career moves, but it got me thinking: How did we get here? What is our secret sauce keeping people around? Now add to that, the big company update:

So we got acquired. There was no easy way to break the news to those who signed on for the startup dreams, and not incite mass panic. Add the reality that we’re now hiring at double the rate to meet capacity for the flood of projects and opportunities from Accenture. What does that get you with designers? Discomfort, anxiety and mainly, abject fear that our previously small close-knit team culture will be blown to smithereens.

How do you alleviate this and more importantly, empower the team to be in control at a time that feels fundamentally out of their control?

All for One, and One for All — Protecting your Culture

First, recognize that leadership is a bare fraction of what creates and maintains great culture. In no way is it a top down process (read the many books and blogs that echo this statement). The team must realize that every individual plays a role in establishing, shepherding, and improving culture.

  • Hiring is King: Be very discerning when it comes to hiring. Our team has the rep of ‘picky’, and we’re totally fine with that — see again the attrition rate. One person can upset the boat, or infect unhealthy tendencies and mindsets. One person can also lead the charge and blaze the path to impassioned performance.
Hire as a family, with multiple stages and opportunities for more than half the team to be involved.

And if the team is not jiving on a candidate — don’t override them. The team won’t be happy, and that person most likely will have an uphill battle they don’t really deserve.

  • Engagement is Queen: Any leader or team member can stand up and talk all day long, ask questions, or create participatory activities; but if you as an individual and the team as a whole is not responsive and highly engaged, well this goes back to the ‘one person does not a culture make”. Find or create ways that force people to open their face and allow their voice to be heard. Personally, I fall back onto many Design Sprint (Google + our own) exercises; frankly, anything involving sticky notes and whiteboards. Get people up, in groups and actually doing something to contribute.

Also provide them with the opportunity to run the show. Start a volunteer workshop series, where they chose the topic and teach their team members something. When a project ends, have them present the outcome to showcase their work. Or just have jam sessions where you hang in the same area and work around each other to foster bonding.

  • Work/Life Balance is the Castle: You think I joke when I say we question if a designer (or anyone) is noticeably over-staying late or working continuously on the weekends. But at Intrepid, it’s 100% true.
Productivity comes from a healthy respect of realizing people’s personal lives matter as much as the work; this is what makes us successful.

Yea, we have an arcade machine and catered Friday dinner + drinks, but that’s the small stuff. Allowing someone to take time for a vet appointment, or work remotely from our NYC office when they have a weekend family event, that’s how you create loyalty and a place people enjoy coming back to.

And you are? — Define the Team

Whether it’s team values, a manifesto, icons, desk succulents or proprietary project process; allow the team members to self-define what they represent as a unit, within the company and their subsequent reflection in the industry. Providing the opportunity to determine how they are viewed, or what their ‘brand’ is will foster a deeper sense of connection and devotion to those standards.

They will not only champion those traits as a team, but spread a singular storyline within the company — or with clients — which instills a strong, cohesive identity and set of expectations.

Ex: If ‘Meticulous’ is a core trait identified as a team (one we later refined), designers will subliminally strive to get the work pixel perfect and to a higher quality; setting a distinct bar and criteria the team intrinsically desires to uphold.

We recently went through a half secretive surprise, half team involvement exercise to define our ‘Team values’ (**more to come**). Positive benefits are piling up and you can visibly see the impact this has had on the team, mainly towards their pride and comfort of protecting culture. I also have long-term plans to create action based events to reaffirm each value on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Providing Stretch/Growth Opportunities

If you are a leader, manager or even project lead, your role is to help those around you operate at their full potential, as well as help them learn to value their contribution. We talk a lot about our tendency to provide our people with an opportunity they personally might not feel ready for, yet we confidence in their abilities to succeed. After a few wonderful presentations at Leading Design Conf London 2017 the term ‘Stretch Opportunity’ has caught fire. On the flip side, team members then feel comfortable asking for a stretch opportunity or a chance to test a growth area of interest, because it is ingrained in our culture.

Allow someone to sit in on Design Sprints if they haven’t and want to learn. As an intern at a previous place, I always asked to sit in the back of strategy meetings and listen to those much smarter and experienced than myself. Allow them to pitch in to another project in their down time if it’s an exciting new technology. If they can get their other work done, there’s rarely a reason to say no to growth interest..

Keeping designers hungry and learning by switching context and challenging them constantly — THAT’s what keeps them happy.

**Update: We made it 15 months. Disheartening when anyone leaves, but it couldn’t last forever, and shouldn’t — fresh perspectives. Over a year of a team functioning as a powerhouse of a unit while growing double in size; I’ll take it.

Now get to celebrating the qualities of your team you admire & #keepkickingassets!

Clap away to toast this post. Or chat on Twitter: Christine Pizzo.